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The top 10 sustainable business stories of 2017

How did the business community respond to a warming, unequal world this year?

This year, the world got hotter, more unequal and Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States. What did the business world do about it?

1. Trump steps back, business steps up

Donald Trump’s promise to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement was the biggest opportunity of the year—possibly in history—for the corporate world to show leadership on climate change. The “We are still in” movement, signed on June 5, saw US-based firms including Google, Apple, Mars, L’Oreal, Nike and Microsoft join city councils, state houses, and college campuses worth $6.2 trillion to the US economy step up to act on climate.

2. The US$5 trillion Asian opportunity

2017 was the year that companies and investors finally got to grips with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). When the United Nations launched the Goals in 2015, many CEOs struggled to see how ambitious targets such as ending poverty and protecting life underwater were relevant to them. This was particularly true of Asia, where firms are small.

But a report from the Business and Sustainable Development Commissioncoincidentally released on the same day as the “We are still in” movement emerged—provided a platform for companies in this region to connect with the SDGs. The Goals present Asian firms with US$5 trillion in business opportunities, BSDC’s study found. Globally, the opportunity for businesses to advance the SDGs is some US$12 trillion

Asia’s banks are still lending on a massive scale to the dirtiest of power producers - this continued through 2017 and could derail significant progress on the region’s low-carbon transition.

Jessica Robinson, founder, Moxie Future

3. Asian banks back fossil fuels

About three quarters of the world’s planned coal fired power is to be built in Asia, and the region’s banks have shown no sign that they will join a growing number of global players such as JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank to pull back from fossil fuels financing.

According to a report by Rainforest Action Network and BankTrack released in July, Asian banks have lent US$95 billion to fossil fuels projects since 2014—more than anywhere in the world—and that number is rising .

“Asia’s banks are still lending on a massive scale to the dirtiest of power producers - this continued through 2017 and could derail significant progress on the region’s low-carbon transition,” notes Jessica Robinson, founder of Moxie Future, and a sustainable finance expert. 

4. Plastic promises

The plight of the oceans came into sharp focus this year—as did the responsibility of companies to protect them. A beach study of plastic waste in the Philippines was embarrassing for global brands such as Nestlé, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, which were found to be the archipelago’s biggest plastic polluters.

That study came just five months after Unilever announced it had developed new technology to recycle used plastic sachets, packaging that has made household goods affordable in developing countries, but also has had a devastating impact on waterways.

Plastic also became a business and marketing opportunity in 2017. Adidas launched a range of ocean plastic trainers, and Dell and P&G put ocean plastic into their packaging.

5. Steering the future of motoring

In December, the world’s biggest car companies co-signed an initiative to address ethical, environmental and labor issues on how they and from where they source raw materials. In a year of upheaval for automotive manufacturers, a number of countries including China pledged to phase out petrol cars.

6. The Weinstein effect

Gender equality in the boardroom became a bigger story in the corporate world this year, partly thanks to the misadventures of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. However, for the second year in a row, the World Economic Forum has recorded worsening economic inequality. Among multinationals, Airbnb has the highest proportion of women in technical roles, a study from earlier in the year found.

7. Renewable Inc.

Global companies such as Google pledged to source all of their energy from renewable sources in 2017, a year when corporate purchase power agreements became more common; Google hit its target in November this year.

The corporate renewable energy adoption hit a milestone in July this year, when global initiative RE100 hit 100 members that have committed to going 100 per cent renewable in the near future. RE100 members have a total revenue of US$2.5 trillion are creating a total of around 146 terawatt-hours (TWh) in demand for renewable electricity annually – about as much as it takes to power Poland.

8. The rise of blockchain

Even old fashioned, low-tech industries such as fashion began to work out how to make supply chains more transparent using blockchain in 2017, and questions were raised about how the cryptocurrency technology could be applied to forestry, energy, fisheries, organic food, mining, carbon accounting, air pollution monitoring and recycling. 

9. Stop Adani

Plans for the world’s largest coal mine, the US$16 billion Carmichael mine in Queensland, Australia, got the greenlight from the Australian government this year, placing a spotlight on the role banks play in funding fossil fuels extraction and the power of people to stop them.

The mine, which is expected to extract 2.3 billion tonnes of coal over 60 years, producing 7.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, has prompted street protests in Australia that have persuaded the country’s four biggest banks to back away from a plan dubbed a “climate bomb”. 

In December, two major Chinese banks also said they have no interest in financing the Carmichael mine, throwing the project’s future into further uncertainty. 

10. Palm oil pressure goes local

For the first time, fingers were pointed at local companies in Singapore and Malaysia about how they source palm oil and from where. Green group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) shamed the companies behind household brands such as Polar Puffs & Cakes to Khong Guan Biscuits to Gardenia Bakeries. Initially 10 out of 27 firms responded to WWF’s approach. After the report was released, six companies took the pledge to source palm oil sustainably, showing that image-conscious Asian companies will respond to public pressure.


This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene over the last 12 months.

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